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Sex Pistols: Many Happy Returns To 'Never Mind The Bollocks'

Tuesday, 31 October 2017 Written by Graeme Marsh

Amazing as it may seem, Sex Pistols’ notorious album ‘Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols’ just turned 40 years old. And yet, the whirlwind of bad press, controversy and monstrous songs that accompanied it came and went in the blink of an eye.

The Pistols’ timeline is remarkably short for a band held up as punk icons (in many quarters as the instigators of the genre, though let’s not open that can of worms right now) and therefore among the leaders of the biggest shift to ever shake up rock music.

Their journey began in 1975 when Kings Road fashion boutique entrepreneur and former New York Dolls manager Malcolm McLaren sought to mould a band in a similar manner to Andy Warhol’s work with the Velvet Underground.

“We decided we needed mannequins to model our clothes and that was when we invented the Sex Pistols,” he told the Telegraph in 2007, the ‘we’ in question being McLaren and Vivienne Westwood. “I thought fashion was much more important than the music," he added. "Punk was the sound of that fashion."

Speaking to Rolling Stone in 1977, he also declared: “Rock and roll is not just music. You’re selling an attitude too. Take away the attitude and you’re just like anyone else. You’re like American rock groups.”

Guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook had been playing together for some time by the mid-’70s, as the Strand and the Swankers, and later collected bassist Glen Matlock (a sometime employee at McLaren and Westwood’s shop). McLaren was eventually convinced to manage them. And then along came something rotten.

“I was going to stand in the shop every day and watch people come in and various individuals were auditioned as a result,” McLaren is quoted as saying in Jones’ autobiography Lonely Boy. “The guy who ended up being the lead singer of the Damned [Dave Vanian] and this group called the London SS which was the group Mick Jones was in before the Clash – they were looked at for possible singers, Chrissie Hynde at one point was considered.

"We didn’t find anybody, at least I didn’t. But Vivienne kept telling me, ‘look out for this guy called John – he’s very good looking and he’s very interesting in the way he wears his clothes.’ “I sat in the store looking for him when in came a guy – a very, very obstreperous creature.”

This obstreperous creature was John Lydon, later Johnny Rotten. He (reluctantly) auditioned by hollering along to Alice Cooper’s Eighteen on a jukebox. “Rotten looked the part with his green hair, but he couldn’t sing,” Jones said. “Then again we couldn’t play, so it was OK.” But it could have been different. The apocryphal tale is that Westwood’s John was in fact another of Lydon’s friends: John Ritchie. He’d later be known as Sid Vicious.

Sex Pistols played their first gig at St Martin’s College Of Art, London on November 6, 1975, opening for Bazooka Joe. It was organised by Matlock, who attended the school. Speaking to the Guardian in 2014, he recalled the event. “I had a bottle of vodka before going on and they pulled the plugs on us,” he said. “People were shoving each other around. Then it all descended into chaos. I think we played half a dozen numbers, mostly covers. Pretty Vacant and No Feelings were already in the set, but I don’t think we got to play them.”

Their rise was rapid all the same. Inside a year the band were signed to EMI and their debut single, Anarchy in the UK, was heading for the shelves. Their marriage to the label would be short and packed with the sort of controversy that McLaren, an arch publicity hound, craved.

At the heart of that was their now infamous interview with Bill Grundy on Thames Television’s Today show. The Pistols were late call ups after Queen cancelled and it was disastrous. But, sure enough, it had the desired effect. With Grundy’s loathing of the band evident during the short interview, he goaded them into swearing on live TV.

Responding to Grundy’s lecherous treatment of Siouxsie Sioux, who was among their entourage that day, Jones called him a dirty fucker and a fucking rotter. The Pistols were front page news, just as planned. The following morning’s Daily Mirror ran a now iconic headline: The Filth and the Fury.

EMI, under great pressure, quickly pulled the plug on the band. A&M, though, snapped them up, with their mock contract signing staged outside Buckingham Palace as they readied God Save The Queen for release. By this point Matlock had left the picture, replaced by a known fan in Vicious. “They were the only group I ever wanted to see,” he told Rolling Stone. The deal lasted days before it was swallowed by the chaos that trailed the band.

A young Richard Branson was the next to chance his arm, signing the band to his fledgling Virgin Records label in May 1977. God Save The Queen had quickly been withdrawn following the termination of the A&M contract, with thousands of copies destroyed as a result. Virgin re-released the single just as the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations were beginning. Timing is everything.

The band performed a gig in June floating down the Thames on a boat, playing God Save The Queen outside the Houses of Parliament. The single was banned in the UK but nevertheless sold like wildfire, with some conspiracy theorists suggesting that it in fact outsold Rod Stewart’s The First Cut Is The Deepest in the week it hit the number one spot.

The band’s next two singles – Pretty Vacant and Holidays In The Sun – also hit the UK top 10 and on October 28 ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’ arrived to enormous fanfare. Recorded between late 1976 and the summer of 1977 at Wessex Sound Studios, a converted Victorian church hall in Highbury, London, the album hit number one in no time.

But come January 1978 it was as good as over. Lydon quit the band following a gig in San Francisco and they disintegrated. McLaren tried to muddle on, releasing tracks without the singer. Just over a year later Vicious was dead of a heroin overdose at 21, on bail following the murder of his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen. The ride was done in a flash but the legacy is as strong as ever. Whatever the truth is around the origins of true punk rock, ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’ remains a monumental album.

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